The Austin Chronicle

Culinary Ladies of the Eighties: Susan Auler

By Virginia B. Wood, November 17, 2014, 3:30pm, On the Range

Fall Creek Vineyards has long been one of the most successful and well-respected wineries in Texas. In the Eighties, founders Ed and Susan Auler set out to establish the Texas Hill Country as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) and wound up helping to put Austin on the national culinary map in the process.

After researching wine-producing areas in Europe, the Aulers knew that establishing the Texas Hill Country as a distinct viticultural area would enhance the value of their property and the status of their wines. Defining the geographical area and documenting the growing conditions was not difficult, but changing the perception about the agriculture of the area was a different proposition.

The Hill Country was known for cattle ranches as well as for raising sheep and goats, sorghum, wheat, oats, hay, and peaches. Although early German settlers were known to have grown some grapes and wild mustang grapes flourished in some parts of the Hill Country, it wasn't until a few intrepid pioneers began planting vineyards in the Seventies and Eighties that it began to emerge as a wine grape area.

In order to promote Fall Creek wines, Auler traveled the country cultivating well-known chefs, sommeliers, and high-profile restaurateurs, introducing them to Fall Creek wines and encouraging them to add them to their lists. While the personal approach was somewhat successful, Susan came up with a better overall plan for promoting the fledgling Texas wine industry.

In 1986, she founded the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival and for the first few years, the spring event rotated between various Hill Country wineries until finally settling at Austin's Four Seasons Hotel. The event always showcased Texas winemakers and featured invited guests from premier wine-producing areas in California, France, Germany, Italy, and Australia at different times.

In the early days, the culinary bona fides of the new festival was provided by a group of Texas chefs on the forefront on the Southwestern cuisine movement. Susan Auler invited her friends Anne Lindsay Greer, Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing, Robert Del Grande, and Mark Miller to create signature meals that reflected Texas' culinary terrior. Their participation gave the young festival a certain cache and began to attract national media attention to both the Texas food and wine scenes.

The festival eventually included up-and-coming chefs from major Texas cities as well as emerging culinary artisans with Texas food products to share. After the interest in Southwestern cuisine got the festival off to a solid start, Auler and the festival board began to invite nationally-known chefs to headline the festival each year and the media attention they attracted provided good exposure for the Texas wine industry as well as Texas chefs and restaurants.

Four years ago, the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival was bought out by the Austin Food & Wine Festival, now affiliated with and funded by Food & Wine magazine. It's a much different festival, but retains plenty of local flavor. Many alums are now part of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance and continue to support and promote our local culinary scene

Though Susan Auler provided the impetus and the guiding vision for the festival, she would be the first person to tell you it would never have happened without the contributions of sponsors and the hard work of board members and hundreds of volunteers over the years. The festival always operated on a limited budget and was never known as a rousing financial success, but its overall promotional value to the Texas wine and restaurant industry is incalculable. The Texas Hill Country is now the number two wine vacation destination in the country and Austin is a recognized media darling these days. Part of the foundation for that current stardom began at an Eighties party in the Texas Hill Country, with Susan Auler as the host.

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